Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Putting off the good life

When I was at Microsoft, I remember how struck I was by the sheer focus and determination of everyone around me. Coming to the company, I was working hard to build a name for myself and gain credibility in the organization - so I worked crazy hours to secure great performance scores each year. Luckily Bobbi and I did not have children yet, and she also was working full time as a newborn intensive care nurse.

One day I was looking through the MicroNews, the Microsoft campus weekly paper, and read an obituary for a man who was about 32 years old, who had died of cancer, leaving a wife and 3 children. As I read further, the most active theme of this obituary was how passionate he was about working at Microsoft. He was well known for keeping long hours. The article even insinuated that he was so focused on work that he failed to get regular medical physicals. Colon cancer had suddenly struck and took his life.

As I read his obituary, I began to weave this persona in with the stereotypical "Microsoftie" of the time. In sum, he worked too hard, spent little time with his family & friends, and died early & tragically of what I can only describe as "self neglect." He must have been putting off the good life, with every intention of getting to it at some point. That point never came.

Today, nearly a decade later, I think about that man a lot. I imagine how his life could have gotten that way, and I am determined not to let it happen to me. The cards are stacked against me a bit though. Not only was my father a workaholic throughout my childhood, but I am also now a business owner, where undoubtedly every hour of effort counts toward your success. I know I can do it, as long as I make a daily priority.

Recently I sat down for coffee with an angel investor who was former Microsoft; he had made a fortune as an early employee of the Redmond giant and now invested in early stage companies. As with any first time meeting, we spent some time talking about family, interests, and the like. His children had long ago grown up and left home for college. They were now scattered across the country. As he told me about them, I could sense that he missed his kids. In as many words, he eventually revealed that he looks back on his children growing up and regrets how quickly it went by.

As I described to him my two young boys and our vacation plans for the holidays, he smiled enviously and commended me for making vacations and recreation with the family a priority. He then recounted many times in his distant past when he could have put his family first, ahead of business and work, but simply kept putting it off. Pretty soon putting things off became easier and easier to do, a habit.

"Once that time with them is gone, Neil, it is gone," he said with conviction as we started to shift gears into a business conversation.

Monday, October 20, 2008

October 20, 2008 - Prosys is Now Acture Consulting.

(SEATTLE, WASHINGTON) We are pleased to announce two important developments today. The first is that The Prosys Group is now Acture Consulting. Acture is a word that means "Action."

The second and most important development is the addition of James Gallagher as a Managing Director for Acture Consulting. For nearly 2 years, Prosys has focused mostly on Product Management work for emerging companies in the Seattle area. With James joining the team, it puts together a "1-2 punch" in terms of providing value to start-up clients. James will head up the Sales & Customer Strategy practice for Acture.

James brings with him a solid playbook with a focus on sales traction and customer acquisition. Over the last 16 years, James has been responsible for building and accelerating revenue streams for dozens of companies. While at Jobster, I personally witnessed James build a sales engine of systems, process, people that achieved some phenomenal sales numbers for our SaaS products.

As Acture brings year two to a close over the next few months, we are gearing up for a busy 2009, assisting start-ups in the areas of business, product and sales strategy. We believe that 2009 will be an important year for companies, as they find they must do more with less. We look forward to partnering with companies in achieving this goal.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Product Management vs Product Marketing

The Seattle area is notorious for blending job titles and functions when it comes to the product managers and product marketers. In fact the majority of people I talk to think they are one and the same. In my opinion, they are very different, especially for a company that is truly customer centric.

Product Management = Inbound
Fundamentally, true product managers have a very important job; they are tasked with representing to the company the needs, pains and opportunities in the market.

They conduct research, watch the market, use related products, read between the lines, ask questions, do competitive analysis, ultimately using their "voodoo powers" to assess and size a given market/business opportunity.

If they do their job, not only will their company be able to depend on them to be the ultimate customer advocate at both a tactical and strategic level, but the product's capabilities and long term roadmap will set the company up for great success.

Product Marketing = Outbound
Product marketers represent to the market the products & services a company offers. They deal in the art of mapping the product's current (and future) capabilities into value propositions that resonate in the marketplace.

They handle analyst engagement, positioning, branding, PR, marketing communications, campaigns, lead generation, etc.

If they do their job, the product they bring to market will successfully resonate with current and prospective customers, ultimately propelling their sales against the competition.

Over the last 10 years, I have had the pleasure of working with rock star product people and rock star marketing people. I have yet to find anyone who is a rock star in both. Certainly the tendency is to combine the role for cost and simplicity; the companies that do this will ultimately be picking one talent (product or marketing) over the other.

Why is this important? It is important to understand if you are planning to add marketing or product headcount to your team. It also can help drive the content of the interviews you hold with top candidates. Candidates who are answering the tendency of companies to want an "all-in-one" product marketing manager will bill themselves as such. With the right questions however, you can easily discover which tendency rules the way they think.

Friday, May 16, 2008

NEWS FLASH: My Mom uses Ning

Back in the day when I was at Microsoft, Jeff Raikes would often use his mother as a proxy for if a user experience hit the mark. "Could my mother do this?" he would ask.

I have borrowed this proxy from Mr. Raikes, now the CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This is how I gauge the pervasiveness a particular website, application or tool.

Most recently my Mom sent me an invitation to a group where art students can upload and share their artwork for comments. I blindly clicked through the invitation, which did a wonderful job of white labeling. When I finally landed on the site, I realized it was Ning. MY MOM IS AN ACTIVE USER OF A NING GROUP.

If I could buy stock in this company, I would. They are doing a great job of building a social community platform that fits any groups requirements and needs. There are so many verticals that once they discover Ning, will fall like dominos. This will be fun to watch!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The right decision vs. making a decision

Having spent much of my time since Jobster working with early stage companies, I have come to see some striking patterns in the challenges that they face.

One such similarity is in the area of decision making. Start-ups by nature find themselves facing decisions where:
1. There are multiple right answers and multiple wrong answers
2. There is little precedence and no data to easily interpret which is which

In these cases, the worst thing that the organization can do is get stuck in analysis and extended debate. If it truly is a decision that meets these characteristics, then I would ask if there is anything that anyone can provide to enhance the clarity of the choices other than opinion?

Right out of Microsoft facing a decision point like this, you would have found me digging in, debating my point of view with the rest. Not so much anymore.

When an early stage company finds themselves in this situation, the bottom line is that the organization will ultimately lose in the end regardless of the outcome.

It loses because it wasted time (sometimes months) debating and politicking their way to a decision, leaving the door open for a competitor to "out-maneuver" them.

It loses because this extended process not only alienated the participants along the way but may have fractured the cohesiveness of the team.

It loses because there may not have been a wrong answer at all.

If hindsight has taught me anything, it is that oftentimes there is no wrong answer. The right answer is to simply pick one and start actively learning along the way- building the data that will inform future decisions. The wrong answer is to do nothing and forgo any learning at all.

How can young organizations avoid this trap? To tell you the truth, it is really difficult, especially when an early stage company has filled it's senior management ranks with seasoned, big company people. These folks are heavy hitters; they're used to getting their way; they're used to winning debates; their saavy at corporate politics. Their comfort zone is to do exactly what the company cannot afford to do.

This is when the CEO must sometimes play the "I'm in charge" card. She/he must be proactive in curbing these tendencies. They must be willing to proceed without total consensus, especially if it relates to a new product that is outside the organizations comfort zone. They must open the organization to leaning toward decisions that produce opportunities for the organization to learn from the market.

Depending on your industry and product, this approach has varying levels of risks. I think it works best in an Internet, software based technology company, where software and services can be easily iterated, and users/customers can seamlessly and immediately gain the value of the next iteration.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

what am I passionate about?

Nearly one year ago I joined with a former colleague and founded a consulting company. It made complete sense. We both intended to work independently for the foreseeable future and at the very least we would be sharing the operational overhead and costs. We formed our corporation, hired a talented accountant and collections specialist, and selected a law & tax firm. Our 2007 tax year turned out to be a good one, we posted a profit.

In summary, year 1 (2007) was all about building the business and operational infrastructure to do something more.

Now I sit and review the 2008 plan and have been talking to a lot of colleagues and contacts about where opportunities exist in the marketplace. Some interesting and compelling things have surfaced, but they ultimately force an important question that was posed to me indirectly over lunch the other day:

What do I want out of this? What am I passionate about?

My immediate response over my spicy grilled chicken sandwitch was that I am passionate about product strategy and helping early stage companies establish an understanding of their market and the build the plans to address it. My lunchmate was perfectly happy with that answer and so was I. Now, however, I wonder.

Thinking more about it that day, I am most passionate about the freedom of working for myself; building a business that ultimately enables me to acheive my life goals. The most specific life goal is better life-work balance but without the financial sacrifice.

The Product Manager in me is starting to see the roadmap:
- BETA: My departure from Jobster. I was so eager to launch beta that I left without plans of what I might do next. That took some guts and passion.
- v1.0: Sub-contract consulting
- v1.5: Co-founding Prosys Inc. and finding my own work.

Each of these stages have taught me something more about myself and what I want.

The clarity reached just after lunch the other day was that while I am passionate about consulting, I am actually not as passionate about consulting as I am about building a business to reach those life goals I spoke of. Consulting is the answer for now and I am good at it.

What is in store for v2.0 you might ask? Good question.